Columns » Ernest Dumas

Worst since Grant

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The George Bush administration had six years to prove one theory: If you populate an entire government with cronies you will inherit corruption and incompetence on a biblical scale. We should not have to test the idea again. It works.

In his first six months, President Bush filled virtually every job within his province with men and women plucked straight from Republican campaigns or the corporate offices and lobbying arms of interests that were to be regulated or that might have a profitable stake in lawful functions of the agencies they would run.

No one could be surprised when the full authority of government was bent to help those whose power the government was set up to counter. That is what has happened from environmental and energy regulation to education, disaster management and even to war. Greed and its handmaiden, incompetence, bestride this government like none since, at least, Grant’s.

Here is the other lesson: When cronyism reaches a certain magnitude, its work will out itself, even when one-party control of all branches of government connives to keep it out of sight. We can thank whistleblowers, leaked audits and the occasional independent agency watchdog, the inspector general, for what we already know.

Take a single week of late September.

Last Friday, an audit of the Department of Education’s reading program, the most (self-)celebrated part of the No Child Left Behind Act, reported that the administration had pressured schools across the country to use a program developed by a company with close political and financial ties to the president although the program was badly flawed and states and local schools wanted to use better ones.

The report by the inspector general said the department’s leaders stacked review panels, ignored federal laws and manipulated selection procedures to steer $4.8 billion in grants to companies that were supportive of the president, mainly McGraw Hill, whose chairman and CEO was a friend and contributor to Bush and the Republican Party.

The crony who was running the program sent an e-mail to a subordinate instructing the worker to bash a company that had no record of support for Bush but wanted some of the reading business:

“They are trying to crash our party and we need to beat the [expletive] out of them in front of all the other would-be party crashers who are standing on the front lawn waiting to see how we welcome these dirtbags,” he wrote.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said she would correct things. Her predecessor, Bush’s Houston pal Rod Paige, was chased by similar scandals two years ago.

A few blocks away in the federal district, someone leaked an inspector general’s report that Bush’s Housing and Urban Development secretary had instructed employees to send federal grants and contracts to companies, organizations and consultants that were Bush’s friends. You could identify them by campaign finance reports.

Only a few days earlier, the inspector general of the Interior Department said cronyism and manipulation had been rampant throughout the top echelons of that department.

“Simply stated, short of a crime, anything goes at the highest levels of the department,” said the IG, a former cop appointed in 1999.

He said his reports of improprieties, bias and cover-ups were ignored by the political appointees, who promised not to do it again and did. He was particularly furious about some 25 ethical lapses by Bush’s deputy secretary, who continued to draw $284,000 a year from his former lobbying firm while he looked after his clients’ interests in the Bush government.

The IG reported specifically on the “bureaucratic bungling” of government oil and gas leases. The New York Times reported that the department had prevented four federal auditors from collecting royalties from oil companies that had been cheating taxpayers.

It was at the Interior Department where Jack Abramoff, Ralph Reed, Michael Scanlon and Republican congressmen worked their Indian gaming scams.

Every corrupt department has been a piker compared with the Department of Defense, where government and industry whistleblowers, civil trials and internal audits have turned up fraud and waste in the tens of billions of dollars, the lion’s share of it in no-bid contracts with subsidiaries of Halliburton, where Dick Cheney was CEO.

But it was not just Halliburton and Bechtel Corp., the other giant Bush supporter and war benefactor. Scores of smaller scams turn up, such as the one that came out in a civil trial this summer brought by former employees because the Pentagon would not pursue it. A company started by a former Republican congressional candidate to get some of the Iraq rebuilding business cheated the government by such tricks as grabbing forklifts from the Baghdad airport, painting over the Iraqi Airlines insignia and billing the Pentagon for them under a contract to create a currency exchange.

It was political cronyism, in fact, that lost the war in Iraq, as Rajiv Chandrasekaran documented in “Imperial Life in the Emerald City.” When Saddam Hussein fell in 2003 and the United States began its reconstruction of government and civil society, a Pentagon office screened companies and individuals who wanted part of the rebuilding work. Expertise was not a factor; it was loyalty to Bush and the Republican Party. Example: The daughter of a right-wing commentator and recent graduate of an evangelical college for home-schooled kids was sent to manage Iraq’s $13 billion budget.

If you love George Bush and the war, you should read it.


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